David White

Published in 2001 in Portals,
Purdue North Central literary journal.

“Everyday Use”: Defining African-American Heritage

       In “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker tells a story of a mother’s conflicted relationship with her two daughters.  On its surface, “Everyday Use” tells how a mother gradually rejects the superficial values of her older, successful daughter in favor of the practical values of her younger, less fortunate daughter.  On a deeper level, Alice Walker is exploring the concept of heritage as it applies to African-Americans.
      “Everyday Use” is set in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s.  This was a time when African-Americans were struggling to define their personal identities in cultural terms.  The term “Negro” had been recently removed from the vocabulary, and had been replaced with “Black.” There was “Black Power,” “Black Nationalism,” and “Black Pride.”  Many blacks wanted to rediscover their African roots, and were ready to reject and deny their American heritage, which was filled with stories of pain and injustice.  In “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker argues that an African-American is both African and American, and to deny the American side of one’s heritage is disrespectful of one’s ancestors and, consequently, harmful to one’s self.  She uses the principal characters of Mama, Dee (Wangero), and Maggie to clarify this theme.
      Mama narrates the story.  Mama describes herself as “a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands.  In the winter I wear flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day.  I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man” (Walker, “Everyday Use” 408).  This description, along with her reference to a 2nd grade education (409), leads the reader to conclude that this woman takes pride in the practical aspects of her nature and that she has not spent a great deal of time contemplating abstract concepts such as heritage.  However, her lack of education and refinement does not prevent her from having an inherent understanding of heritage based on her love and respect for those who came before her.  This is clear from her ability to associate pieces of fabric in two quilts with the people whose clothes they had been cut from:
  In both of them were scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more
  years ago.  Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell’s Paisley shirts.  And one teeny
  faded blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great
  Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he wore in the Civil War… “Some of the pieces,
  like those lavender ones, come from old clothes [Grandma Dee’s] mother handed
  down to her,” [Mama] said, moving up to touch the quilts.
                                                                                        (Walker, “Everyday   Use” 412)
The quilts have a special meaning to Mama.  When she moves up to touch the quilts, she is reaching out to touch the people whom the quilts represent.
      Quilts are referred to in many of Walker’s works.  In The Color Purple, she uses a quilt to help a dying woman remember the mother of her adopted daughter (159).  In her essay “In Search of our Mother’s Gardens,” she writes about a quilt in the Smithsonian Institute that was made by an anonymous black woman: “If we could locate this ‘anonymous’ Black woman from Alabama, she would turn out to be one of our grandmothers” (14, 15).  Walker uses quilts to symbolize a bond between women.  In “Everyday Use” the bond is between women of several generations.  Elaine Showalter observes in her essay “Piecing and Writing,” “In contemporary writing, the quilt stands for a vanished past experience to which we have a troubled and ambivalent relationship” (228).  This statement seems to apply specifically to the quilts of “Everyday Use.”
      The quilts are not, however, the only device Walker employs to show Mama’s inherent understanding of heritage.  Walker also uses the butter churn to show Mama’s connection with her family:
  When [Dee] finished wrapping the dasher the handle stuck out.  I took it
  for a moment in my hands.  You didn’t even have to look close to see where
  hands pushing the dasher up and down to make butter had left a kind of sink in
  the wood.  In fact, there were a lot of small sinks; you could see where thumbs
  and fingers had sunk into the wood.  It was a beautiful light yellow wood, from a
  tree that grew in the yard where Big Dee and Stash had lived.
                                                                                        (Walker, “Everyday Use” 412)
When Mama takes the dasher handle in her hands, she is symbolically touching the hands of all those who used it before her.  Her appreciation for the dasher and the quilts is based on love for the people who made and used them.
      Mama’s daughter Dee (Wangero) has a much more superficial idea of heritage.  She is portrayed as bright, beautiful, and self-centered.  Walker uses Dee to symbolize the Black Power movement, which was characterized by bright and beautiful blacks who were vocal and aggressive in their demands.  Many of them spoke disparagingly about their “Uncle Tom” ancestors and adopted certain aspects of African culture in their speech and dress.  Mama’s descriptions of Dee portray her as this type of individual:  “Dee, though.  She would always look anyone in the eye.  Hesitation was no part of her nature,…She was determined to stare down any disaster in her efforts.  Her eyelids would not flicker for minutes at a time…At sixteen she had a style of her own: and she knew what style was” (Walker, “Everyday Use” 409).  These personality traits, along with her style of dress and speech, establish her identity as a symbol of the Black Power movement.
      It is important to recognize that Walker is not condemning the Black Power movement as a whole.  Rather, she is challenging that part of the movement that does not acknowledge and properly respect the many African-Americans who endured incredible hardships in their efforts to survive in a hostile environment.  She uses the character of Dee to demonstrate this misguided black pride.  Mama tells how Dee:
   ... used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole
   lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice…[She}
   pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away at just the
   moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to understand.
                                                                                        (Walker, “Everyday Use”, 409)
Later, Mama relates, “She wrote me once that no matter where we ‘choose’ to live, she will manage to come see us” (410).  In these two examples Mama is pointing out that Dee sees herself as belonging to a higher intellectual and social class than Mama and Maggie, and they should feel honored by (and humiliated in) her presence.
      Mama’s insights are verified when Dee arrives on the scene.  Dee’s visit is primarily an exercise in taking.  When she first arrives she takes pictures.  Later, she eats the food Mama prepared.  After dinner she takes the churn top and dasher and, after “rifling” through the trunk, attempts to take the quilts (410-412).  Although she has renounced her American name, she still holds tight to American consumer culture.  As David Cowart
  She wants to make the lid of the butter churn into a centerpiece for her table.  She
  wants to hang quilts on the wall.  She wants, in short, to do what white people do
  with the cunning and quaint implements and products of the past.  Wangero fails
  to see the mote in her own eye when she reproaches her mother and sister for a
  failure to value their heritage – she, who wants only to preserve that heritage as
  the negative index to her own sophistication. (175)
      Dee’s new name, her costume, and her new boyfriend (or husband) are all indicative of her frivolous attitude toward her newly adopted African culture.  In researching the name Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, Helga Hoel found that the names “Wangero and Kemanjo are misspellings of the Kikiyu names “Wanjiro” and “Kamenjo.”  Leewanika is an African name, but it is not Kikiyu.  Hoel also found that Dee’s dress is of West African origin (the Kikiyu are East African) (Hoel 4).  These inconsistencies seem to indicate Dee’s superficial nature.  Dee’s     preference for appearance over substance is further delineated in Walker’s portrayal of her boyfriend (or husband) Hakim-a barber.  His appearance and language imply that he identifies with the Black Muslims, but unlike the Black Muslims down the road, he is not interested in farming and ranching (Walker, “Everyday Use” 411).  By comparing him to the Muslims down the road, Walker is implying that Hakim-a-barber is more interested in professing the ideology of the Black Muslims than he is in the hard work of implementing their ideas.  There is no mention of affection between Dee and Hakim-a-barber.  Each of them merely serves as a part of the other’s façade.  This superficiality, on the part of both Dee and Hakim-a-barber, is representative of the many blacks who jumped on the Black Power bandwagon with no real dedication to its root causes.
      Dee’s ignorance of her adopted African heritage is matched by her ignorance of her actual American heritage.  She knew she had been named for her Aunt Dee, but was unaware of how far back the name went in her family (411).  After dinner, she flippantly decides to take the churn dasher, even though she has no knowledge of its history (412).  Later, when she decides to take the quilts, she says, “These are all pieces of dresses Grandma used to wear.  She did all the stitching by hand” (412).  The quilts were actually made by Grandma Dee, Big Dee, and Mama, and included scraps of clothing that belonged to both of her grandparents, as well as her great-grandparents and her great-great grandfather (412).  Dee’s lack of knowledge concerning her family is symbolic of the Black Power movement’s disregard for its American heritage.  This neglected American heritage is represented in the story by the character of Maggie.
      Mama first describes Maggie’s nature by saying “Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes: she will stand hopelessly in corners homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, eyeing her sister with a mixture of envy and awe”  (408).  Maggie’s scars are symbolic of the scars that all African-Americans carry as a result of the “fire” of slavery.   Mama gives a more detailed description later in the story:
Have you ever seen a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some
careless person rich enough to own a car, sidle up to someone who
is ignorant enough to be kind to him?  That is the way my Maggie
walks.  She has been like this, chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet
in shuffle ever since the fire that burned the house to the ground.  (409)
This depiction of Maggie is reminiscent of the “yes sir, no ma’am” Negro heritage from before, and well after the Civil War.  Eyes on ground, feet in shuffle – Maggie will not be the poster girl for the Black Power movement.   They would prefer that she remain inconspicuously in the corner.  This denial of American heritage is evident in Dee’s lack of interaction with Maggie.  Dee does not even speak to Maggie until she is angrily leaving the house at the end of the story (413).
      Despite all the negative observations Mama makes about her, Maggie is very aware of her heritage.  This is evident from her statement about the churn dasher:  “‘Aunt Dee’s first husband whittled the dash,’ said Maggie so low you almost couldn’t hear her.  ‘His name was Henry, but they called him Stash’” (412).  It is significant that Maggie knew the history of the dasher because Dee, who knew nothing of its history, and was not even sure what she would do with it, took it with no thought for either Maggie or Mama.  Maggie’s understanding of her heritage also comes through when she tells Mama that Dee can have the quilts because “I can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts” (413).  Earlier, Dee had expressed her fear that Maggie would “probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use” (413).  It is clear from Maggie’s statement that her “everyday use” of the quilts would be as a reminder of her Grandma Dee.  Dee’s primary use for the quilts would be to hang them on the wall as a reminder of her superior social and economic status.
        This conflict between the two daughters over who should rightfully own the quilts and how they should be used is central to the theme of the story.  Walker is arguing that the responsibility for defining African-American heritage should not be left to the Black Power movement.  African-Americans must take ownership of their entire heritage, including the painful, unpleasant parts.  Mama represents the majority of black Americans who were confused as to how to reconcile their past history with the civil rights reforms of the ‘50s and ‘60s, but were not quite comfortable with the Black Power movement’s solution.
       Mama reveals her ambivalence toward Dee from the beginning of the story.  While Mama is proud of her daughter’s success and envies her ability to “look anyone in the eye,” she is uncomfortable with Dee’s selfish, egotistical nature.  Although Mama dreams of being on a television show where Dee is embracing her and thanking her with tears in her eyes, she parenthetically asks, “[(]What would they do if parent and child came on the show only to curse out and insult each other?)” (408).  Later, in describing Dee’s tenacity, Mama says,
Dee wanted nice things.  A yellow organdy dress to wear to her graduation
from high school; black pumps to match a green suit she’d made from an old
suit somebody gave me.  She was determined to stare down any disaster in
her efforts.  Her eyelids would not flicker for minutes at a time.  Often I fought
off the temptation to shake her.  At sixteen she had a style all her own: and
knew what style was. (409)
Mama seems to admire her daughter’s determination, but because it is motivated by selfishness, she wants to shake her.
      Mama’s feelings toward Dee are also expressed through her attitude toward Dee’s new name.  When Dee tells Mama that she has changed her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, Mama is clearly disappointed, but immediately starts referring to her as “Wangero” in her narration (411).  Mama’s use of the name “Wangero” does not, however, imply respect for Dee’s choice.  There is a definite tone of sarcasm in Mama’s voice, reinforced by her comment “I’ll get used to it…[r]eam it out again” (411).  As Mama continues the narrative, she gradually changes “Wangero” to “Dee (Wangero)”, and in her final reference simply refers to her as “Dee.”  These transitions are indicative of Mama’s change in attitude toward Dee.  Mama does not immediately understand the serious implications of Dee’s name change, and is able to make light of it.  But as Dee’s selfish and disrespectful actions clarify the significance of her choice, Mama loses her sense of humor and finally drops “Wangero” altogether.  Just as Wangero had rejected “Dee,” Mama now rejects “Wangero.”
      In rejecting Wangero, Mama makes a choice to accept Maggie.  Throughout the story, Mama has described Maggie in terms that make it clear that she is disappointed and possibly even ashamed of her.  Mama is aware that Maggie’s condition is the result of a fire over which she had no control, but she has not recognized the incredible strength her younger daughter has required, just to survive.  After Maggie says, “She can have them, Mama…I can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts,” Mama says,
I looked at her hard.  She had filled her bottom lip with checkerberry snuff and
it gave her face a kind of dopey hangdog look.  It was Grandma Dee and Big Dee
who taught her how to quilt herself.  She stood there with her scarred hands
hidden in the folds of her skirt. (413)
This scenario was foreshadowed in the beginning of the story when Mama said,
Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes:  she will stand hopelessly
in corners homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs,
eyeing her sister with a mixture of envy and awe.  She thinks her sister has
held life always in the palm of one hand, that “no” is a word the world never
learned to say to her. (408)
      But now, Mama is looking at Maggie “hard,” and she sees something in her she has not seen before.  She sees her mother and her sister – the two women whose name Dee has rejected.  In Maggie’s scarred hands she sees a heritage she should be proud of – not ashamed of.  It suddenly becomes very clear to Mama which daughter should rightfully own the quilts, and she finally tells Dee “no.”
      Alice Walker is, as David Cowart argues, “[satirizing] the heady rhetoric of late ‘60s black consciousness, deconstructing its pieties (especially the rediscovery of Africa) and asserting neglected values” (Cowart, 182).  But Walker’s main purpose in the story seems to be to challenge the Black Power movement, and black people in general, to acknowledge and respect their American heritage.  The history of Africans in America is filled with stories of pain, injustice, and humiliation.  It is not as pleasing as a colorful African heritage that can be fabricated, like a quilt, from bits and pieces that one finds attractive.  It is a real heritage that is comprised of real people: people who are deserving of respect and admiration.

Works Cited

Cowart, David.  “Heritage and Deracination in Walker’s ‘Everyday Use.’”
         Studies in Short Fiction 33 (1996): 171-84.

Hoel, Helga.  "Personal Names and Heritage:  Alice Walker’s 'Everyday Use'." 2000.
         Trondheim Cathedral School, Trondheim, Norway.  30 Jan. 2000.
          [Current editor's note: since moved to http://home.online.no/~helhoel/walker.htm]

Showalter, Elaine.  “Piecing and Writing.”  The Poetics of Gender.  Nancy K. Miller, Ed.
         New York: Columbia UP, 1986.  222-47.

Walker, Alice.  “Everyday Use.”  Literature:  Reading Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and the Essay. 4th ed.
         Robert DiYanni, Ed.  New York:  McGraw Hill, 1998.  408-413.

Walker, Alice.  “In Search of our Mother’s Gardens.”  Ms Magazine. Sept.-Oct. 1997: 11-15.

Walker, Alice.  The Color Purple.  San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.

To cite this essay:

White, David. “'Everyday Use': Defining African-American Heritage." 2001.
Anniina's Alice Walker Page. 19 Sept. 2002. [Date you accessed the page]


Essay copyright ©2001 David White. Published by Luminarium through Express Written Permission.

Alice Walker site and web presentation copyright ©2002 Anniina Jokinen.

Page created 19 September 2002 by Anniina Jokinen.